Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Health-Care Entrepreneur-Turned-Farmer

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The local foods movement and concern for the environment are among the reasons for the growing popularity of community-supported farming

Rain is coming, and Stephen Tiwald and his son are in a bind. The $30,000 tractor they got to speed up production on their Midwest minifarm has instead brought work to a halt. The screws securing the marker-wheel shafts on the tiller aren't long enough, so the Tiwalds will have to MacGyver another fastener out of whatever they can find. If they don't get the rows set so they can transplant thousands of leek seedlings before the rain comes, it'll be days before they can plant.
It's an everyday hustle down on the farm, but the Tiwalds' spread is hardly typical. Their Green Earth Institute—60 acres of Illinois prairie girded by two-story Georgian homes in a suburban subdivision—is a community-supported farm. Neighborhood customers offset costs through subscriptions in exchange for a share of its bounty of 40 vegetables and herbs, such as cucumbers and basil, over 20 weeks.
But while "locavore" (, 5/20/08) has become part of the lexicon and organic produce fetches premium prices (, 5/20/08), the six-year-old farm has never broken even. And this year will be another money-loser, Tiwald acknowledges, even though he expects a 30% increase in sales. He's not all that concerned, however. The 58-year-old escapee from the corporate world launched the nonprofit institute not just to feed the neighbors; his greater purpose is teaching kids environmental sustainability and such basic facts as food comes from the soil, not boxes and cans in Aisle 4.

A Farm in Every Neighborhood

Community-supported farms such as Tiwald's are inching their way into the mainstream. Since 2001, these entrepreneurial farms have grown 30%, to 1,200 nationwide. Of the 20 in Illinois, at least half serve the Chicago market. The Green Earth Institute, in Naperville, is the area's largest. The original owner donated the acreage to the Conservation Foundation to protect the farm from being swallowed up by suburban sprawl. "There ought to be a farm in every neighborhood," Tiwald says.
Tiwald's subscribers receive an allotment of the harvest. A weekly box of carrots, peas, peppers, and the like costs $595 for the season, and a biweekly supply is $320. This year, the farm expects a $175,700 take. But even with almost $40,000 earned from educational programs, seedling sales, and donations, Tiwald projects the business will fall $10,600 shy of this year's $225,000 operating budget, which includes salaries and benefits for himself, five interns, a part-time educator, and his 27-year-old son, Nathan Hutt-Tiwald, who joined the farm after working there during college breaks.
So far, the farm has acquired much of its equipment through donations. The tractor and tiller are exceptions: Tiwald and his wife, Karen Hutt, a middle-school librarian by day and the farm's bookkeeper by night, bought them with their own money.

You Can't Count on the Rain

Even with his sweat-stained baseball cap and farmer's tan, Tiwald looks more Eddie Bauer (EBHI) than Blain's Farm & Fleet. Before planting his first onion in 2003, his only agricultural experience was in his parents' garden in Omaha. But he has always been interested in health. After college, Tiwald set up the first HMO in Nebraska and later managed health-care businesses for companies now known as UnitedHealthcare (UNH) and Health Direct. His last venture was his own HMO marketing firm. But the future for little shops seemed numbered, so when he learned in 2002 that the farm was available, he decided he was ready for a career change.
Tiwald signed a lease and took over the farm on Jan. 1, 2003, planting 1¾ acres. This season, he's cultivating 11 acres. He'd plant more if he had the money for equipment and infrastructure, such as a new well to replace the decades-old one. "You can't depend on regular rain," says Tiwald. Indeed. The promised storm spits only random droplets, a welcome reprieve, at least for now.


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